WASHINGTON—In an “unbelievable miracle” he attributed to God, college economics professor David Brat defeated incumbent representative and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Republican primary Tuesday.
Cantor’s shocking loss in the state’s 7th Congressional District serves as a stern rebuke to establishment politicians and provides the most visible sign yet of grassroots voters’ frustrations with the status quo in Washington. Cantor becomes the first lawmaker to lose a primary while holding the House majority leader position, providing a jolt to the recent conventional narrative that the GOP establishment had gained the upper hand during this primary season.
Brat won even though Cantor raised considerably more money. Brat took in a little more than $200,000 while Cantor, who has occupied the House majority leader position since 2011, raised nearly $5.5 million. But Brat said, “The good news is dollars don’t vote. People do.” His victory illustrated how the district’s voters, who Brat characterized as fed up with Washington, could not be swayed by who spent the most dollars.
“I just paid attention to people,” Brat said in a Fox News interview on Tuesday night. “If you go door to door knocking, the American people know the country is heading in the wrong direction.”
Many Washington insiders—from lawmakers and their staffs to journalists and lobbyists—thought Cantor would cruise to victory. But it was Brat, benefiting from the persistent support of conservative figures such as Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, who could boast about a win that wasn’t close. The professor, who teaches Third World economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., won with a solid 55.5 percent of the vote to Cantor’s 44.5 percent.
Brat did not credit himself with the 11-point win. He opened his victory speech Tuesday night with Luke 18:27: “Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God.’” His crowd of supporters cheered wildly. Later in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Brat continued to praise God for his victory.
“It’s a miracle,” said Brat, who earned a master’s degree in divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary. “I’m a believer, so I’m humbled that God gave us this win. I was blessed. … God acts through people. And God acted through the people.”
Suffering the biggest election upset since then House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., lost to Republican George Nethercutt in the 1994 general election, Cantor, 51, will finish his seventh congressional term in December. He told his stunned supporters Tuesday night that serving in Congress was one of his life’s highest honors.
“I know there’s a lot of long faces here tonight,” Cantor said. “It’s disappointing for sure, but I believe in this country. I believe there’s opportunity around the next corner for all of us.”
The abrupt end of Cantor’s time in the House will be analyzed for weeks. But some attribute it, at least in part, to his stance on immigration. Brat characterized Cantor as too soft on immigration, calling Cantor’s support for giving citizenship to some children of illegal immigrants a form of amnesty. Cantor’s exit will surely change the dynamics of the immigration debate and other controversial legislation on Capitol Hill, as other veteran lawmakers will look over their shoulders at potential grassroots challengers before casting votes.
When Brat, 49, announced his candidacy in January, he pledged to be “Cantor’s term limit.” With a doctorate in economics, Brat supports free market principles and limited government. He claims too many mainline GOP representatives have expanded government and forgotten their conservative ideals. Brat said federal government leaders have run amuck with their preference for top-down centralizing of most functions.
“I don’t think the federal government should be involved in making my life work,” he said.
Brat now moves on to the Nov. 4 general election, where he will run against another Randolph-Macon professor: Democrat Jack Trammell. The district is strongly Republican.
Despite this primary season being considered a key measuring stick for the clout of the tea party, many of the national tea party groups stayed out of this Virginia primary. Most probably doubted Brat’s chances. Outside groups spent between $5,000 and $10,000 against Cantor, with the bulk of the dollars coming from a new political action committee called We Deserve Better.
But those same national tea party groups were quick to jump on the Brat bandwagon after Tuesday’s results. The Madison Project’s Daniel Horowitz said, “Just a few short weeks ago, the establishment was working the media over trying to shut the coffin on conservatives and the tea party.” And the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund Chairman Jenny Beth Martin released a statement claiming Brat won because he “harnessed the outrage at Washington” and focused it on one leader.
“Congratulations to Dave Brat, and to the local Tea Party activists who helped propel him over the top in this crucial contest,” Martin added. “This is the people’s house and we are reclaiming it for the people.”
There is still more at stake during this election year for the tea party. While establishment candidates in places like Kentucky fended off tea party challengers, tea party candidate Chris McDaniel forced Mississippi incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran into a runoff set for late June. While Brat’s win in Virginia was the highlight of Tuesday’s primaries, results in other states show that not all established GOP party members are endangered: Sen. Lindsey Graham won the South Carolina Republican primary, avoiding a runoff by besting six tea party challengers.
Richard Viguerie, the chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, a conservative web publication that takes on big-government Republicans, believes the victory of tea party candidates like Brat heralds the slow demise of Republican big-spenders.
“The American voters are just so angry at Washington, D.C., that no one is safe anymore,” Viguerie said. “It sends a message to Washington that business as usual is no longer acceptable.”
Attention now turns to other Republican primaries, including one in Kansas where GOP Sen. Pat Roberts is facing tea party challenger Milton Wolf.
“Eric Cantor isn’t the only incumbent from Virginia who is going to lose his primary this year,” Wolf said Tuesday, referring to questions about Roberts’ residency. “On August 5th, it’s Pat Roberts’ turn.”
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the block of conservative lawmakers will feel strengthened in the aftermath of Cantor’s defeat. House Republicans will now speculate over who could be the next House speaker if John Boehner, the current speaker, retires from the post. Cantor, as the second ranking Republican in the House, was considered a possible successor.
“Eric Cantor and I have been through a lot together,” Boehner said in a statement Tuesday night. “He’s a good friend and a great leader, and someone I’ve come to rely upon on a daily basis as we make the tough choices that come with governing.”
Democrats, on the other hand, worked quickly Tuesday night to portray the Virginia results as proof that the Republican Party is too extreme.
“As far as the midterms elections are concerned, it’s a whole new ballgame,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Voter turnout in the primary was up compared to the 2012 primary. While 47,000 voted in 2012, 65,000 voted Tuesday. Showing how fast the landscape has changed, Cantor won his primary two years ago with 79 percent of the vote. But the results might not have been a total surprise. Cantor learned his reelection bid would not be as easy as previous elections when, during the district’s Republican convention in May, the audience booed him for saying Brat’s earlier speech was full of inaccuracies.